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Nebraska Nicks Northwestern, 29-28, in Final Moments

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Prepare yourself for a week-long rattling off of jaded, trite, exhausted Northwestern football clichés. The “Cardiac Cats”, the “Northwestern can’t win the big one”; get ready for it all. Because the Wildcats deserve those criticisms after blowing a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to Nebraska en route to a 28-29 loss. On two separate occasions in the final period, NU had the game in its hands, literally. First, there was Ibraheim Campbell’s near pick-six, where the sophomore safety dropped Taylor Martinez’s ill-aimed throw on a promising diving effort. Moments later, three Wildcats collaborated on a dropped interception, with Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Sean McEvily co-opting a huge blown opportunity. Both plays would have sealed an NU victory, and so much more. Had McEvily or Campbell delivered the final blow to Nebraska’s comeback chances, NU would have been sitting at 7-1, with a prime stake in the Legends Division race, well-positioned to make a run at a Big Ten Championship game bid. Instead, the Wildcats watched a season-defining victory slip away. And while there is still a ton of football left to be played, this one hurts any way you slice it.

“When you don’t make those plays, the football gods usually strike you with some lightning,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald postulated after watching his defense botch two chances to put away the Huskers. But this wasn’t about divine forces dispensing retributive wrath, nor did it have to do with NU’s history of blown leads and fading in big moments. This was a bigger, faster, better-prepared Nebraska team handling a lesser opponent. If not for a series of costly mistakes, the Huskers may have sealed things well before the final minutes.

Two muffed punts gave NU the favorable field position it needed to seize a first-half lead. On the first, with under two minutes remaining in the opening quarter, NU took over on the Huskers’ 14 yard line. Three plays later, Trevor Siemian found true freshman superback Dan Vitale for a 10-yd score. VanHoose, Mr. Johnny on the Spot, came through with another fumble recovery early in the second quarter. There was no immediate touchdown reward this time, but the self-implosion on special teams disrupted the Huskers’ rhythm, resulted in terrible field position and prevented Nebraska from taking control. Once it did, in the fourth quarter, the Huskers clicked on all cylinders. They evaporated NU’s lead so quickly that it was fair to wonder why or how the Wildcats had avoided that gloomy fate all afternoon.

On both sides of the ball, Nebraska played to its physical and schematic advantages. The Huskers came in touting the Big Ten’s best offense, a potent unit replete with a dangerous dual-threat quarterback and a score of game-breaking targets. The defense had hardly lived up to blackshirt standards at this stage in the season, but the talent (and the scheme) was already in place, albeit unrealized in an outwardly productive way, and the unit finally pitched a respectable performance. The well-rounded effort, complemented by an effective tactical plan of attack, eventually overwhelmed NU.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow but as a competitor, it’s reality sometimes when we don’t get our guys to make those plays,” Fitzgerald said.

On offense, the Wildcats were stymied by a sound defensive gameplan. The two quarterback system – which, at this stage of the season, I’ve officially forfeited my ability to derive meaning from the coaching staff’s fickle switching tendencies – was equal parts incongruous and disruptive. Siemian threw two touchdowns, but completed just 43 percent of his passes and missed his mark on numerous occasions. Counterpart Kain Colter, who one week prior completed all 10 of his passing attempts and notched a 152.9 passer rating, threw just one pass and picked up a mere 35 yards on the ground. Asked whether he expected a larger role in the offensive gameplan after his prolific star turn in Lincoln last season, Colter rejected ideas that he was unhappy with playcalls or playing time allotments. “I was in some different situations than I was last year, but we just didn’t go out there and execute.” Still, despite lip service to the contrary, Colter’s minimized share of the offensive workload was at the very least puzzling. NU’s running game was kept under wraps by a previously scuffling rush defense. The stats would have shown as much, too, but for Venric Mark – who on the whole was far less effective than usual, and departed the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury – breaking an 80-yd touchdown run in the third quarter.

The other side of the ball brought no measure of relief for NU. Martinez unleashed the sort of firework display that sparked a full-fledged Heisman campaign two years ago, accounting for 407 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. He made receivers Quincy Enunwa and Kenny Bell look like expert route runners with uncharacteristically pinpoint passes, lofted over the outstretched reach of NU dbs, placed perfectly for numerous big gains. The Huskers used Ameer Abdullah, their own running back-receiver hybrid in the Venric Mark mold, to barrel through the Wildcats weak run defense. Digested in its entirety, Nebraska’s offensive and defense prowess dictated a winning performance.

And still, the 28-16 lead NU built up midway through the fourth quarter had Nebraska on the brink. At that point, the Huskers’ decided statistical advantage – the Nebraska with 543 total yard of offense to NU’s 301 – need not matter. The commanding efforts on both sides of the ball, the hot quarterback and unchecked receivers and spot-on schematic adjustments become irrelevant. NU had a resounding victory within reach, the type of result that forces people to stand up and take notice. “It was a heck of a battle and we ended up one play short,” Fitzgerald said.

The only way to rinse out the bad taste and forget those regretful final eight minutes is to avoid the same mistakes that contributed to that downfall next week, when Iowa comes to Evanston for another massive Legends showdown. NU may have fallen out of the Division race, but statistical elimination isn’t sealed, meaning the Wildcats still have a chance to climb the division pecking order by season’s end. It’s going to take a lot of help, perhaps multiple losses from Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan, but the possibility exists nonetheless. Before NU can even think about a division title, though, it needs to consider more modest aspirations. Beating Iowa eliminating the lingering malaise of the Huskers’ comeback win and restoring the promise of a 6-1 start is the main focus.